Theresa May demands Boris Johnson apologise for Islamophobic burqa 'letter box' comments

The row over Mr Johnson's comments is growing amid calls for an inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Tuesday 07 August 2018 19:37 BST
Boris Johnson under fire for comparing niqab-wearing women to 'letter boxes'

The Tory Islamophobia row has intensified after Theresa May demanded Boris Johnson apologise for comparing women wearing burqas and niqabs to bank robbers and letter boxes.

The prime minister said the former foreign secretary’s comments had “clearly caused offence”, as controversy around his words grew on Tuesday.

Her intervention followed a wave of anger from senior Conservatives, who slammed Mr Johnson’s remarks as Islamophobic and accused him of partaking in dog-whistle politics to stoke a future populist leadership bid.

The chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum also told The Independent his words “pander to the far-right narrative that Muslims do not belong in this country”.

But Mr Johnson has refused to back down, with friends claiming it is “ridiculous” to criticise his comments and accusing party chiefs of “shutting down the debate”.

Taking time out of an official trip to Scotland in a bid to try and get a grip on the controversy, Ms May said: “I do think that we all have to be very careful about the language and terms we use.

“And some of the terms Boris used describing people’s appearance obviously have offended. So I agree with [Tory chairman] Brandon Lewis [that Mr Johnson should apologise].

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“What’s important is do we believe people should have the right to practise their religion and, in the case of women and the burqa and niqab, to choose how they dress. I believe women should be able to choose how they dress.”

The prime minister said she believed it was right to discuss such issues openly, but reiterated the need for care in the language used and added that Mr Johnson’s words, published in an article for The Daily Telegraph, had “clearly caused offence”.

The furore was sparked when Mr Johnson wrote in his column that Muslim women wearing headdresses were choosing “to go around looking like letter boxes”.

He then added that if a women turned up to his surgery wearing a face covering, he should “feel entitled” to ask her to remove it.

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The former London mayor went on: “If a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber, then ditto.”

The backlash against Mr Johnson began when his former deputy at the Foreign Office, minister Alistair Burt, said he would never have made such comments and argued that there was “a degree of offence” in them.

As pressure on Ms May to intervene grew, Mr Lewis took to Twitter to say he agreed with Mr Burt and called on Mr Johnson to apologise.

Tory MP Heidi Allen tweeted that Mr Johnson’s comments made him “about as suitable to be PM as he was foreign secretary”. Her Conservative colleagues Anna Soubry and Jonathan Djanogly also spoke out against Mr Johnson, while Paul Masterton MP accused him of “mocking women“.

Mohammed Amin, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, which has repeatedly complained about Islamophobia in the party, accused Mr Johnson of pandering to extremists and making “inflammatory” and “divisive comments”.

He told The Independent: “Boris Johnson’s comments are very divisive and extremely unfortunate. He is free to say that he feels uncomfortable with people wearing burqas, but when he mocks women who wear it and compares them to ‘letter boxes’ and ‘bank robbers’, that it is wrong.

“His words were inflammatory and pander to the far-right narrative that Muslims do not belong in this country. These comments divide our country at a time when we are under so much stress already.”

Former cabinet minister Lady Warsi accused Mr Johnson of adopting the “dog whistle” tactics of former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon in the hope of attracting support from right-wing Tories for an eventual leadership bid.

Repeating her call for an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party, she said: “Muslim women should not be a useful political battleground for Old Etonians.

“It is crass and it must stop, and it must be condemned by the leadership right from the prime minister down.”

Baroness Warsi on Boris Johnson's comments about Muslim women's dress

Amid the controversy, a source close to Boris Johnson hit back, claiming it was “ridiculous” that the comments he made were being targetted by people in his own party.

The source said: “It’s ridiculous these views are being attacked – we mustn’t fall into the trap of shutting down the debate on difficult issues.

“We have to call it out. If we fail to speak up for liberal values then we’re simply yielding ground to reactionaries and extremists.”

Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen also said Mr Johnson did not need to apologise, saying the former foreign secretary had been trying to raise the subject in a “lighthearted way”.

“I think if you can get your point across with a little bit of humour it’s very much appreciated by the public,” he added.

Labour’s shadow minister for women and equalities, Naz Shah, also called for an independent inquiry into islamophobia in the Conservative Party following Mr Johnson’s comments.

She said: “Boris Johnson’s comments were not just offensive, they were Islamophobic but the prime minister is in denial.

“An apology is not enough: she needs to order an independent inquiry into Islamophobia in her party, as requested by the Muslim community, and take action against him.”

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